Saturday, February 20, 1999

Young eager to shake bad defensive tag




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Dmitri Young does not ask for much. He does not demand any particular piece of real estate, just a small plot of earth to call his own.

        The Cincinnati Reds' switch-hitting nomad seeks stability this spring. If he is to play right field, he wants the chance to concentrate on it. Practice won't make him perfect, but it might make him less painful to watch in pursuit of fly balls.

        “Let me work on one position, and get rid of that terrible tag that's been hung on me,” Young pleaded at the Reds spring training complex.

        And which terrible tag would that be?

        “That I'm a piece of crap defensively,” Young said.

        For a pampered professional athlete, Dmitri Young has few illusions about his abilities. He knows it is his lumber and not his leather that has brought him to the big leagues, and that his comfort was not a consideration when the Reds had the chance to get Greg Vaughn.

        Ostensibly settled in left field after a breakthrough 1998 season, Young went to Cinergy Field on the evening of Feb. 2 to rendezvous with Reds General Manager Jim Bowden and first baseman Sean Casey for an appearance at St. Xavier High School. He arrived only a few hours after the Vaughn deal had been done.

Has accepted moves
        “How would you feel about playing right?” Bowden asked. Young did not have a single sacrifice bunt last season, but he knows how to take one for the team. He embraced the Vaughn deal as Churchill did Roosevelt; recognizing the alliance would diminish his importance but enhance his cause.

        “If that meant me moving to right field,” Young said, “that's a small sacrifice for the big picture.”

        Young made his first appearance last season in right field, but his first start was at first base and his first two months were spent wandering. He would not play 10 successive games at the same spot until after the All-Star break, when he finally latched on as the regular left fielder. He made 10 outfield errors altogether, and probably missed a few balls because of surplus pounds he has since shed.

        “I think if I can concentrate on one position, I should get a lot better,” Young said. “Naturally, I'm going to have some miscues out there. I'm going to screw up. It's just a matter of learning from the mistakes.”

        Since the first plastic carpet was installed at Riverfront Stadium, the Reds have generally emphasized outfield speed at the expense of power. The acquisition of Vaughn and the redeployment of Young suggest a shift in philosophy, away from sleek sprinters toward stodgy sluggers.

Hitting can cover sins
        “You want speed,” said Reds manager Jack McKeon. “You want power. But you've got to make a choice. If they hit, some of our defensive sins are eliminated. If you score enough runs, you can always defense for them (in the late innings).”

        Until the advent of the designated hitter — still forbidden in these parts —— left field was the place baseball teams were most willing to trade defense for offense. Right field requires a stronger arm, and a different read on the ball off the bat. Some guys make the transition seamlessly — Babe Ruth would sometimes play left or right depending on the sun — while others react as if asked to do trigonometry on their toes.

        “It depends on who plays it,” said Reds bench coach Ken Griffey, a minor-league left fielder who played right for the Reds. “I didn't have any problem making the switch. But I had Mike Frank in the Arizona Fall League. He had played right field all his career and I asked him to play left, and he panicked.”

        Jim Bowden concedes he can't say for sure what sort of right fielder Dmitri Young will make. Ken Griffey is more confident.

        “To me, he never really had a bad rap,” Griffey said. “I thought he did a hell of a job last year in left field for somebody who was out of position. Let him play, and he'll be fine.”

        Let him play, and Dmitri Young won't ask for more.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE